NB100 Cyberdeck

By David Crookes. Posted

As self-confessed retro nuts, we did a double take when we saw the Clockwork Pi DevTerm. It reminded us of the TRS‑80 Model 100 portable computer while also showing how attractive a notepad device can be nearly 40 years on, with a full physical keyboard beneath a widescreen display.

What’s more, we’re not alone in thinking this. “When I saw the DevTerm, I thought – wow – I need this!,” says Philipp Hoeler-Lutz. And yet the price put him off, prompting a search for a different way of achieving the same result.

“I found an affordable Amstrad NC100 and I thought this was the form factor I wanted at an affordable price,” he says. “It also looked similar to the cyberdeck I imagined when reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer novel. It didn’t take long to find a purpose.”

Sugar coating

The Amstrad NC100 was an A4 slimline notepad 8-bit computer which used the Z80 processor and came with a built-in LCD screen that displayed 80 characters columns across eight rows. It had 64kB or RAM, 256kB of ROM, and a full keyboard with a handful of coloured keys. The Protext word processor was built-in alongside other ‘office’ apps. But Philipp wasn’t impressed.

“I removed all the parts,” he says. “For me, the NC100’s processor power, ROM, and RAM are insufficient for today’s use and the monochrome display is small. I also found the keyboard was pretty awful if you’re used to mechanical keyboards.” Yet he liked the overall design: “It looks cool. I thought I’d give it a new, modern life.”

Retaining only the case, he based his project around a Raspberry Pi computer. He decided he’d replace the screen with an 8.8-inch 1920×980 widescreen LCD, and use a CRKBD driven by an Arduino Pro Micro board.

“A friend, Alejandro, sent me some CRKBD PCBs and I was blown away,” Philipp says. “It’s a small, split keyboard with three rows of six keys per side. When I tested the two halves, they fit almost perfectly, especially given that the height of the CRKBD is quite low. That said, I still had to move the keyboard microcontroller away from the PCB and pack it under the display.”

You can find out more about the CRKBD (aka Corne Keyboard) here.

A fitting end

Space was a major issue. “There’s only about 9 ×29 ×2 cm available to put Raspberry Pi, the cables, and display including the control board inside,” Philipp explains. He decided to put the display on top of the case rather than recess it, saving 4 mm. He also removed the Amstrad’s battery compartment and sanded away all elevations. Once done, it was a matter of connecting everything up and using the operating system NixOS.

“NixOS is different from other Linux distros,” he notes. “It’s declarative and very easy to produce with the entire OS configurable in a single config file. You can also generate your own development environment in NixOS, including the dependencies for each project. I can briefly test tools without installing them too.”

The result of all of this hard work is a cyberdeck that works as a Linux terminal, allowing Philipp to run a Mastodon social networking service, use the text editor Vim, blog, and enjoy RSS among lots of other things. “Using the NB100 means I don’t have to sit down at my laptop or computer,” he says. “And I’m still able to use this beautiful piece of Amstrad hardware.

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